STAROBILSK, Ukraine -- When four armed men in camouflage drive by in a shabby car to a petrol station, it’s easy to think they are Kremlin-backed guerrillas. But the blue-and-yellow stripes of Ukraine’s flag tied to their Kalashnikovs reveals they are fighting on the nation's side.
This similarity is not strange considering that the paramilitary Aidar Battalion is made up mostly of Donbas residents who volunteered to fight against the Kremlin-backed gunmen. They hope to use their knowledge of the Donbas, including Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, to secure a homefield advantage victory for Ukrainian forces.
The remaining 40 percent of this unit comes from all over Ukraine, united by love of country and hatred of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Glory to Ukraine” and “Ukraine is above all” are drawn on the walls of an abandoned sausage factory, where Aidar establishes its headquarters. The drawings of Ukrainian national emblems and flags supplement the patriotic mood.
Dozens of armed men and women are walking over the territory of their base, while others are having lunch, watching TV, talking or napping. Even thoguht Aidar is subordinate to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, its fighters are quite different from army soldiers.
Only 10 percent of them had any military experience before joining the battalion. But the volunteers say they compensate their lack of military skill with a strong fighting spirit, developed over the months at the EuroMaidan Revolution in Kyiv that overthrew Viktor Yanukovych as president on Feb. 22.
“Aidar taught our army forces not to be afraid to shoot,” battalion’s spokesman Anatoliy Usychenko with a nome de guerre as the Tick said, quoting Andriy Parubiy, secretary of National Security and Defense Council.
Wearing military camouflage, rubber slippers and a knife hanging on his belt, Usychenko, a former designer from Zhytomyr Oblast, said that on July 15 Aidar’s fighters managed to capture with the help of paratroopers 18 separatists belonging to special unit called “Don.” When the rebels were claiming all of them come from Ukraine, members of Aidar said there were obviously some Russian nationals among them.
“Now we’ll have many people for exchange (for Ukrainian hostages),” Usychenko said.
Aidar also was losing their fighters as hostages, the most prominent of whom is a pilot Nadia Savchenko, who was kidnapped in late June near Metalist town in Luhansk Oblast when along with other battalion’s fighter she tried to rescue the wounded servicemen from the dangerous place. Savchenko was brought to Luhansk, from where after interrogations she was transported to the Russian city of Voronezh. Russian prosecution accused her of being an APC gunner at a fight that brought to death of two Russian reporters.
“This is nonsense, she is a pilot and has nothing to do with APCs,” Usychenko said, adding that Savchenko spent only about one week in the battalion, coming there to visit her friends during her vacation.
Now Aidar Battalion has some 400 fighters with dozens of volunteers coming almost every day. After two weeks of training every newcomer receives gun and a task he has to fulfill. Most of their weapon Aidar’s fighters received from the army, and then also seized some guns from separatists.
One of the fightersm Anton Sokolov, 27, came to Aidar Batallion in late May after taking part in the EuroMaidan Revolution. “We were defeating the authorities there and here we are fighting to save Ukraine,” he said. After the war, Sokolov wants to visit the orphanage in Kharkiv Oblast where he grew up.
Oleksandr, 50, has a nickname Guide because he claims to be able to predict the future. He has nothing to do with Maidan. A resident of Stakhanov in Luhansk Oblast, where he worked as a mountain engineer before retirement, Oleksandr believes that “all of the decent people should be for Ukraine.”
Belka (squirrel in Ukrainian) is a good-looking 21-year-old girl who came to Aidar along with her sister Sirius, 25. Both women refused to give even their first names as their relatives still believe they are on Maidan in Kyiv. Here they register and organize the database of Aidar’s fighters. But after a month of military drills, the women said they are ready to fight on the front lines. Their grandmother lives in nearbly Starobilsk and she misses her friends.
"Just a year ago we were spending time with them at music festivals, and now I’m here and they are at separatists’ barricades,” she said.
Aidar has already lost 10 of its fighters and many more have been wounded during this war. Shakh, 29, a Ukrainian of Chechen origin born in Vinnytsia Oblast, believes that the war is “nothing else but the dividing of money.” He condemns the Chechen mercenaries who fight on the side of the Kremlin-backed separatists, but admits getting offers to fight in Syria.
The ultra-nationalist orientation of Aidar people often makes the residents of Donbas in eastern Ukraine very suspicious of them. The separatists are reportedly more willing to arrest the army soldiers, when they often decide to finish the fighting volunteers, the reports said.
Aidar guys also behave sometimes more harshly than the army.
After liberating the city of Shchastya some 15 kilometers from the provincial capital of Luhansk on June 14, Aidar installed its own commandants in the city's police station and even arrested the local deputy mayor for cooperation with separatists. Local residents find it scary to see armed strangers walking the streets and imposing their own rules, but they have no choice.
During the May 25 presidential elections, Aidar’s people successfully captured 13 separatists who seized ballots at several polling station in Novoaidar. Two civilians were killed, however, in the crossfire between Aidar and the Kremlin-backed guerrillas, as the Kyiv Post witnessed.
The incident exposed the Aidar’s lack of discipline and willingness to disobey army commands. “They may tell us what to do, but it doesn’t mean that we will necessarily do this,” said one of Aidar’s men, a businessman from Severodonetsk in Luhansk Oblast.
Many of Aidar’s fighters criticize the army for being too hesitant. “Maidan taught us to remove all the obstacles on our way,” Usychenko said.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced with travel support from www.mymedia.org.ua, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action, as well as Ukraine Media Project, managed by Internews and funded by the United States Agency for International Development. The content is independent of these organizations and is solely the responsibility of the Kyiv Post.